I considered it a personal failure when I learned that a client team I’ve been coaching for the last several months has recently been working on deliverables without my knowledge. They haven’t asked for feedback and it hasn’t appeared on any project schedules. Where did I go wrong?
In a chat with the product manager, I asked why no one had told me what they were working on. He assured me these documents were “just for them” and that they wouldn’t be sharing them outside of the team; they were personal exercises to ensure they understood the subject matter and got some practice communicating it visually.
“I apologize for the communication breakdown,” the product manager said. “But this is what happens when there’s no project lead.”
I was perplexed. For the months that I’ve been on this project — establishing a user experience practice, traveling with the team to visit customers, reviewing documentation, leading workshops — I was quite clear on who was playing the role of the project lead: him. Apparently he didn’t agree.
“But you’re the project lead,” I said.
“No, I’m the product manager,” he said.
“Yes, I know. But you’re the person who knows everyone else on the team, has spent the most time working on this product, who is our greatest subject matter expert, who communicates regularly with all of the stakeholders, and who is defining our project timeline. Doesn’t that make you the project lead?”
“No way,” he said. “I don’t have the time to lead. I’m already way overextended as it is.”
I was floored. The roles in this organization are so starkly defined that even the person “playing” the role is afraid to claim the title, lest they be saddled with all of the other responsibilities it entails. Though he agreed he’s responsible for the product, though he agreed he’s responsible for the timeline, he declined to take responsibility for the team.
As a result, no one is responsible for the team; when the team is not communicating well, there’s no one to address it. We’re all just responsible for ourselves, which means we aren’t much of a team at all.
I spent two days really disappointed with the guy for refusing to be a leader. If he doesn’t have the time to lead, he doesn’t have the time to succeed. A fear of accountability from the person who is assumed to be the leader will no doubt lead to a fear of accountability from the rest of the team. No accountability, no integrity. No integrity, no respect. Total fail.
Then I got to thinking about where this all started: me being out of the loop. Was that really due to someone else’s lack of leadership, or was it due to mine?
I have to accept the reality that people aren’t sharing their internal progress with me because they don’t believe they’re supposed to or because they simply don’t want to. I’m not seen as the team leader because I never claimed the role. I’ve been waiting for someone else to do it.
This is an ongoing challenge as a consultant: I’m seen as a thought-leader, but not as a team leader. And it’s entirely my doing. I don’t work in their office, I don’t sit with them at lunch, I don’t share their culture, I don’t get held to the same standards. I’m a free agent. That’s the role I’ve chosen, because it’s the life I want. So how can I really blame anyone for seeing me as an outsider? I am.
I’m not sure how to reconcile this. I believe I have the skills the team needs to succeed, and that’s ultimately what I’m getting paid for. But if not being a full-time team member means I can’t be the team leader — and the natural team leader isn’t interested in the job — is the project doomed? Am I really providing them with any value? Can I coach them towards better teamwork without being in the game?
I don’t know the answers and I don’t know how to proceed. It’s scary to put this out there, but if I don’t share my challenges, I’ll never learn how to overcome them. I’m eager to get your advice. If you’ve experienced this before, seen it happen to someone else, or have any insights to impart, please leave a comment.
Do I need to find a way to lead the team? Or do I need to accept that I’m not the leader and ultimately can’t control the outcome?
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